All the delay and turmoil associated with building toll lanes on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) has obscured the tantalizing mysteries waiting at the inevitable opening sometime in the next couple of months.
What’s it going to cost to use the tolled “express” lanes at rush hour? And will they work?
By “work,” I mean, draw enough drivers into the toll lanes, at whatever price this takes, to make a difference on the free lanes alongside, but not so many vehicles that the toll lanes clog up and slow down below toll officials’ golden goal of at least 45 mph speeds.
As I wrote in a July 2016 about all this, back when Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority officials were still predicting an early 2017 completion of the project — we were all so young and naive then — hitting that magic balance will be the responsibility of a computer algorithm based in the agency’s Cedar Park toll command center.
That algorithm will set toll rates based on traffic and speed levels recorded by sensors and cameras on the 11 miles of North MoPac that will have a toll lane in each direction. And, if the whizzbangery performs as agency officials hope and predict, it will get smarter with time and experience.
On northbound MoPac, from West Cesar Chavez Street to near Far West Boulevard, the tolling should begin in early October, we were told last week, with the full southbound side from Parmer Lane to West Cesar Chavez coming on line about a month later.
About half of the northbound side has been open for tolling since October, but it really doesn’t solve the mystery. More on that in a moment.
The reality is that the toll traffic and speeds, like the toll price, probably will be more like a yo-yo than a metronome during peak commuting periods. Traffic volumes, starting on the free lanes, will spike upward, and so the algorithm will start raising the toll rate. Maybe there will be a slight slump in toll lane traffic, and then more traffic in the toll lane as clogging gets worse in the free lanes. Then a price hike, and perhaps a dip in usage. So a price drop. And so on.
I know people I talk to have been having trouble wrapping their minds around this variable toll thing. Every other toll road in Austin (there are eight operating right now) has fixed toll rates.
Why would you charge more and more (there will be no maximum toll on MoPac), some ask, if your goal is to get people to use the toll lane? Charge less and more people will use it, they say. Economics 101.
And they’re right on that. But here’s the thing: set the toll rate too low and too many people will use it at periods when the free lanes have slowed down to well below free flow. A highway lane, traffic engineers say, can accommodate about 1,500 to 1,800 vehicles an hour and maintain relative free flow and a good speed.
But if, over a 10-minute or 20-minute period, people are entering the toll lane at a rate much higher than that, congestion will begin. And before long, the toll lane, like the free lanes alongside, will be stop-and-go too. Then people won’t really want to pay to use it, and transit buses won’t be able to rely on it to meet their time schedules. At least, that’s the logic of this.
But all of this theoretical stuff about highway supply and demand just adds to the underlying discomfort many people still have about paying to drive on a highway. After all, just 11 years ago Austin had never seen an active toll road in its history. Now you’re telling me that the toll rate could be anywhere from 25 cents to … my whole savings account?
The mobility authority, in the runup to the expanded opening of MoPac’s toll lanes, will be running TV commercials to explain how they work and why people should try them.
Steve Pustelnyk, the agency’s community relations director, last week showed the initial 60-second ad to the authority board. Embedded within it at one point were some illustrative toll rates to demonstrate the up-and-down movement.
The initial $3 in the ad clicks upward like a slot machine to $3.75, then back down to $2.50. This display made one of the board members noticeably uncomfortable. Were those numbers based on anything, he asked?
Yes, Pustelnyk said. A consultant for the agency had done consumer research, asking people what they would pay to take a MoPac toll lane to avoid congestion in the free lane. As he told me later, the actual numbers were more in the $1 to $2 range at rush hour for the whole 11 miles, less if a person chooses to take the one exit halfway through (near Far West). But the reality, as I said at the top of this column, is that even the mobility authority doesn’t know what’s going to happen.
What people tell a pollster they’ll do isn’t necessarily what they will actually do when they’re half a mile from the toll lane entrance and the sign says the price will be $3. Throw in a wreck on the free lanes and interest in the toll lane could get really high, really quick. Leading to a toll lane price spike, and then the yo-yo effect.
What we know so far, from the open northbound section, isn’t all that helpful. The price has typically stayed at the minimum 25 cents because the free lanes alongside, being far from downtown and north of U.S. 183, generally are in free flow. Even at rush hour, with a bit more traffic up that way, the toll rate has generally stayed at 51 cents to 53 cents, I was told, with a spike to 83 cents on June 5 when there was an accident.
On average, about 2,500 to 3,000 people a day have been taking the toll lane (coincidentally, about the same as MetroRail’s ridership). Just under 273,000 “unique drivers” have driven the toll lane at least one time in the first 10 months it was open, according to the mobility authority. Most of those were probably toll tourists, just sampling it. I drove it a couple of times myself in this manner.
But things should be much different on the southern half on the northbound side, and on the full 11 miles southbound. The toll lane sections to come will offer an alternative to genuinely congested stretches of MoPac. As the toll authority commercial suggests, people who really need to get someplace (to work on time, to a family activity after work or, in my case, to a football game to referee) likely will be more willing to pay for that opportunity.
How much? How often?
That will depend on the size of each driver’s paycheck, and the urgency of each particular trip. Something over 150,000 people will make such a decision every day.